It was approaching midnight when we arrived at the Milk’s Camp community in Gregory County, S.D. We had pulled out of the church parking lot 17 hours earlier, and I was exhausted. Fifteen of my congregants—12 teenagers and three other chaperones—had come to visit, learn from, and work alongside the leaders and youth entrepreneurs of the nonprofit Lakota Youth Development.
To my relief, our hosts had already erected the tepees we would sleep in. After we unpacked, the camp director gathered us to review a few basic rules. We learned where we could find bathrooms, coffee and extra sleeping bags.
Then she noted another important camp policy: “You kill it, you eat it.”
Marveling at the clarity and conciseness of this rule, I realized that we were entering into a different way of being among our fellow creatures.
As I drifted to sleep, this mandate set up camp in my mind. On a cosmic level, it made sense to me. How much more just, and less violent, might the world be if all humans were somehow made accountable for the many kinds of death our lifestyles brought about in the created order? I gazed up at the clear stars.
After breakfast the next morning, we got to work. The temperature would hit 100 degrees later in the day, so now was the time to get cracking on projects: weeding gardens, building beehive boxes, and upgrading the shower house and picnic pavilion.
Most of these projects related to how the Lakota share meals in, and nourish others from, the camp. The terrain is rough and dry—not exactly conducive to conventional agricultural practices. But each food-related venture seems to be driven more by a desire for cultural assertion and affection than by a desire for calories.
A Lakota youth beekeeping enterprise helps the local ecosystem, teaches life skills and produces honey. A medicinal and ceremonial herb garden produces powerful tools for physical and cultural health and restoration. A picnic pavilion provides a place for the intimate and powerful act of sharing meals across cultures.
Restoring right relationships
That night, as I watched the sun set and felt the heat of the day finally dissipate, I realized that what we were being invited into was a time of sabbath.
Often when I think of sabbath, what comes to mind is a spa day, where the primary goal is to escape from the daily grind. Suffice it to say, when preparing to chaperone and pastor this mission trip, I wasn’t thinking of it as a time of sabbath. But as I watched the sun drop behind the hills, images of sabbath were exactly what came to mind.
I thought of Genesis 2, the climax of the creation story, where God rests on the seventh day to savor the beauty of what God had made. God rests after creating a complex web of interdependent creatures—plants, animals and people—all commended to one another for mutual care and nourishment.
As I watched the sun drop behind the hills, images of sabbath were exactly what came to mind.
I thought of Exodus 16, where God abruptly overhauls the Israelites’ economic self-understanding by feeding them freely with better food than their slave masters had ever allowed them in Egypt.
And I thought of Leviticus 25, where God specifies that all creation is to participate in sabbath observance—not just the Israelites, but also their slaves, the livestock and the land itself. God mandates an occasional year where every single meal is a reminder that it is ultimately by God’s hand—not our prowess—that we are fed.
I realized that a notion of sabbath that is primarily about motionlessness and escape isn’t adequate to the world I live in because too much of my life—and the devices and policies that enable it—are already oriented toward motionlessness and escape.
What I need is to recognize that sabbath is about reconciliation—the restoration of a right relationship among God’s diverse people, and between humans and our fellow members of creation. Sabbath is about taking regular time and space to consider whose rules we are playing by when it comes to our place in the economy of God’s creation—God’s or ours? It’s about embracing being impacted (physically, spiritually or otherwise) by any life I kill or consume.
Sabbath is about being mindful of all the lives we take and deeply grateful for those that sustain us as food. It’s welcoming each morning with a song of praise. It’s allowing the rhythms of the day and season to inform our cycles of labor and leisure.
In his book Sabbath as Resistance, Walter Brueggemann said remembering the sabbath is the most difficult and most urgent commandment to keep in our society. It didn’t take long during the drive home for my mind to be consumed by all the tasks, deadlines and invoices that awaited me. I killed a fly before we hit Iowa, and I didn’t eat it. Clearly, I have some more work to do.